Carving out Cultural Connection: Priscilla Boulay Continues Family Legacy Far From Home
“Creating is really important to me. Just let me create, I’ll be happy,” muses Priscilla Boulay, a third generation carver who is originally from Tuktoyaktuk but now lives just outside of Calgary. Boylay grew up watching thirteen of her relatives carve and picked it up as a hobby herself. Her family collaborates together and now they are teaching their young ones. In creating her art, she uses materials from muskox, soapstone, antlers and whalebone that are sent to her from family and friends all over the North.
Carving was the path Boulay chose after having her youngest daughter and wanting to stay home with her. She also wanted to carry on her legacy of her grandfather who taught his own children to carve. Far from home and not able to participate in her culture in the same way, carving gives Boulay a way to share her stories. She teaches about inukshuks, whale hunting, walrus and their tusks, and muskox. The wisdom she passes on is intended to create cultural connections for her children. “Being Inuk in the urbancity, they’re learning how it is to be Indigenous,” she shares.
Boulay got her start selling her work when she went to local markets and they suggested she apply to a big Christmas Market that includes high end work like hers. She applied to exhibit there under the name Inuvialuit Carvers, a company name she came up with to sell her family’s art. Boulay created a website and social media accounts for her company.
Her training to be a carver was all informal within her family, but she did take formal training in sand casting and silversmithing. With limited business training, she’s had to figure out how to make things work. Her husband’s technical skills have come in handy, especially after people tried to hack her website. She met him when she was learning different computer programs in college and when he moved to Calgary for work, she followed him there and never looked back.
Boulay’s advice for young people who are unsure about leaving home is, “Don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Go explore the world; the world is so beautiful. There's so many beautiful places, and it's fun. Do it while you’re young. You have all these opportunities to take advantage of, government help and school help. There's people out there to help if you can’t find your way. Think about something you want to do and conquer it.”
To get over fear of being alone in the city, Boulay suggests connecting with Inuit or Indigenous groups. She says that those communities will make you feel at home with their friendliness and help you find a light. “There's lots of good things there,” she smiles. Being online helps her feel connected to family that is far away and gives her the kind of communication she feels is missing being from a small town. The comments she receives on her photos help her feel closer to home.
Being online hasn’t just helped her personally, it’s also helped professionally. Boulay has been able to reach customers through Facebook marketplace and made a connection to become part of Connected North. When one of her friends was asking if there were any carvers that were interested in doing presentations, she answered the call and now gets to share her experiences and expertise with youth who are eager to create their own works of art. Now those kids get to grow up seeing people carving like she did, get inspired to create and make things that they can show off with pride.
If she could give her younger self a message, it would be to listen to her parents, but she has learned from her mistakes and grown from them. She didn’t finish high school right away, taking some time for hunting and fishing and being on the land. Those experiences outside of the classroom have inspired and informed her carvings today.
To find balance in what she does, Boulay takes the weekends off to spend time with friends and family. When she was homeschooling her kids during the pandemic, she would carve in the mornings and spend time with her family in the afternoons after posting what she made online. Balance is important to her because she says, “I really don't want it to run me. I want to be happy doing what I'm doing.”
The time she spent with her family is reflected in her work, time spent fishing with her grandfather when he would pull the fish net out full of fish and when she would fish herself. She likes to capture whale hunting in her work, the scenery where she grew up and also polar bears. Sometimes she goes on Pinterest to get inspired, but also the natural beauty of the materials she uses give her inspiration to create.
She has words of wisdom for youth, saying, “thank you for being interested in exploring creative activity. Try everything. Be connected to your culture. Don't be afraid to try and just have fun doing everything. Don't stress about if it’s going to be a beautiful product. Enjoy life. Be happy and respect your elders.”
Even though she’s far away from home, her art keeps her close to her family and her people. She knows how important it is for her happiness to be able to create. Bringing her talents from Tuktoyaktuk to the South, she’s proud to continue her family’s legacy and carve out cultural connection in Calgary. Teaching youth and selling her work online and making art inspired by her time offline and on the land, she’s nurturing a new generation of carvers and sharing her stories.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.